Medieval & 18th century crime
What better way for your pupils to learn about how people were tried and punished in medieval times & the 18th Century than by undergoing the trials and punishments themselves! In this display we look at crimes, trials and punishments in the medieval and 18th century eras and what the differences are.
Display time: 45 minutes to one hour
Max number of students: 30 (or one class), about 90 pupils per day but please double check.
Number of displays per school day: In an ideal world we would run the medieval trials first, then quick change for 18th century. In this case each trial is half an hour and that would mean 1 hour of workshop time for each pupil. That might equate to about 6 half hour trials over the day, with 4 in the morning and 2 after lunch. Alternatively we could run trials for one time period only, and therefore run it for a larger number of students over the day. Each child would then have half an hour of workshop time.
Minimum number of teachers required: One (2 adults is best in case the teacher needs to leave the room for some reason).
Display area: Large classroom or hall. A lunch hall is perfect.
This part of the workshop looks at trial by ordeal, trial by sacrament, various punishments such as stocks & branding, the scolds bridal and animal trials.We choose pupils to become different medieval characters and talk about the crimes that they are about to stand trial for (e.g. stealing deer from the kings land, murder etc).
The class act as our jury members but can never seem to decide whether the characters are guilty of their crimes, they therefore will have to undergo various trials by ordeal and some of the milder punishments such as stocks and pillories.
Eleanor is an ale wife, she has allowed her hens to roost above her ale mash and many people have been made sick. She will have to undergo trial by hot iron to decide her guilt or innocence! Her punishment will be decided by the Shire-Reeve (Sheriff).
Punishments would often fit the crime, a punishment for stealing could mean being branded with an F for Felon (so whenever he handed money over it would be visible unless wearing gloves) or worse still have his hand cut off. A baker who sold underweight bread would be dragged round the town on a sled with a loaf of bread about his neck.
Another fitting punishment, was the scolds bridal. From the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century onwards a scold or woman who nagged her husband was a ‘scold’ and it was her husbands right to lead her round the town in a scolds bridal attached to a rope. The bridal is extremely uncomfortable and presses down on ones tongue and would have cut into it after a while. It was certainly difficult to nag with one on.
There were also some more unusual trials in medieval times, the trial of animals. Many animals were tried in medieval times but particularly pigs (they lived in such close proximity to us) and pigs are omnivorous and will eat anything. Many pigs were put on trial for attacking or murdering small children. The punishments were varied but included one case where the pig was dressed in clothes then burnt at the stake. Sometimes equivalent flesh would be taken from the pig which it had taken from the child. Animals could be put in trial by combat situations too. Some of the most bizarre cases of animals being put on trial involved a plague of rats or insects such as weevils. Animals would be given the same rights as humans. But it was not the animal on trial as animals were said to have no soul but the devil within which had possessed the animal.
Eighteenth century & the ‘Bloody code’
In a similar format to our medieval trials, pupils are put on trial for their crimes. The main difference will be that they will be considered guilty . It is up to the accused to prove their own innocence!
This part of the workshops looks at:
The ‘Bloody code’
Capitol crimes increased fourfold during the 18th C. Partly to blame were broadsheets, papers which published and often sensationalised the worst and bloodiest crimes committed, and so the number of capital crimes increased under the Bloody Code to stop this imagined tide of crime, although in fact the recorded crime rate actually fell. Many new things became crime.
Even when a crime was supposedly punishable by death it would often end up as transportation instead. This involved sending convicts off to work in the colonies. From the early 17th C till the American Revolution in 1776, this involved being sent to America but after that convicts were sent to Australia. This practice continued officially until 1868 but was stopped a few years prior. Conditions on board ship to the colonies were dire and their life once there was often very difficult & hard work.
Your money or your life!
Highway robbery was common from the 17th C into the early 19th C. The penalty for Highway robbery was death by hanging. In the early 19th C Highwaymen came to a slow demise, possibly due to the turnpikes and capped off by the new mode of transportation, the railway.
Resurrectionists (body snatchers)
Resurrectionists were those that stole the bodies of the dead after they had been buried and sold their bodies to doctors to dissect for the purposes of science. A heinous crime you might think but although it was frowned upon, it was never actually illegal to dig up a body and sell it as it belonged to nobody. The only time they could be in trouble was if they stole the shroud that the body was buried in! Many people tried to negate the practices of the body snatchers by creating tomb safes to keep their bodies secure after they died but the resurrectionists managed to find their way around these too. Occasionally resurrectionists would murder to obtain bodies, the most famous resurrectionists who did this were Burke & Hare from the early 19th C: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders
This display is based on the books your pupils study and is designed to act either as an aid to revision or as an introduction to the subject and we can vary the content based on their age and ability level. We hope to add Victorian crime to our list of trials for the future.